There is nothing more debilitating, more corrosive, and ultimately more depressing than not being able to trust people.
I guess that’s why most people on the planet, whatever their political convictions were slightly relieved when Donald Trump was banned from Twitter – it was quite destabilising being bombarded with messages from the most powerful man in the world, knowing that they often contained statements and perspectives which couldn’t necessarily be trusted. It’s also why all of us want to be able to trust our spouses, our friends, our brothers and sisters in church, and our leaders. When trust breaks down, it’s painful, confusing, and so difficult to ‘fix’. And that’s what had happened between Paul and the church he had planted in Corinth.
The problem was that Paul said one thing, and done another. He said he was coming to Corinth, and then he didn’t show up. This change in travel plans had seriously damaged the Corinthians already messy relationship with the apostle. Now it was at breaking point. They were on the point of giving up on Paul, and perhaps on the gospel too. So Paul writes to them in 1:12-2:13, pleading with them to do one thing: he says ‘TRUST ME!‘
There’s a sense in which once you’ve got that, you’ve got this passage. It’s all about TRUST. Broken trust, restoring trust, earning trust.
Paul carefully explains why the Corinthians can and should trust him, and in doing so, gives us a template for all our relationships as those who have been joined to Christ by faith. So at the risk of spoiling the surprise – here’s his answer to the question ‘Why should you trust me?’ Paul replies ‘Because I’m imitating Christ.’ The basis for trust in the church of Jesus Christ is Christ-likeness.
There are two basic truths we need to hold onto here: the first is that we are all deeply sinful, and never quite escape the down-drag of our sin. But the second is that Jesus Christ died and rose again so that we can be like him. So that we can copy and resemble the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
I have to say that I think today, we can be a bit weak on this idea of copying Christ and being like him. We’re strong on the fact that Jesus has done everything for us, but tend to downplay the vital importance of Christ-likeness. But not Paul. He’s already told the Corinthians to do this a few times, most memorably in 11:1 where he says Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. This is the bedrock of Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians – stick with me and the gospel, come with me, copy me as I copy Christ.
I don’t know about you, but I have always felt just a little bit uncomfortable with this. It is so un-Australian (and un-Irish) to bignote yourself. ‘Look at me – this is how to follow Jesus’. And yet we do actually need people, models to copy. If we here at MPC are to be what God wants us to be, to create and rebuild and restore a church family which reflects all that Jesus is and has given us and holds out to us, we need models. We need to step up together, commit to copying Christ together and living like him together with the strength that is already ours through his death and resurrection. It’s daunting, but let’s be very clear – this passage doesn’t simply call us to an impossibly high standard, but rather throws us back on Christ himself, in whom God has given us everything we need for life and godliness.
Paul’s attempts to straighten out hurts, misunderstandings and accusations by highlighting four basic marks of Christ-likeness, which we’d do really well to prioritise:
INTEGRITY AND GODLY SINCERITY (1:12-14)
Here’s where Paul starts: 2 Cor. 1:12Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and Godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.
It does sound strange that Paul starts with ‘boasting’, because for us, boasting is always bad. There is no such thing as good boasting. But for Paul and the NT, 8 times out of 10, boasting is a marvellous thing. How can this be? Because Paul is boasting about what God has done in Christ, and then in us. His boasting is based on what he is by the grace of God, as he spells out at the end of verse 12. Paul can boast because he is genuinely convinced that everything good about him, every decent decision, every positive instinct, flows straight from God’s kindness. Of course, he know he still messes up, but because of God’s intervention, he is secure, and consistent, and can even boast about God’s undeserved kindness, and do it in good ‘conscience’.
Our the conscience is the highly sensitive, slightly unreliable instrument that convicts us of the gap between what the Bible says and how we are living. Conscience detects where our lives don’t match with what we say we believe. The problem is that naturally, our conscience is slightly unreliable.
When we were first married, we owned a British racing green mini metro. It was a decent car, but the heater was slightly dodgy, which was no joke in the dark winter mornings of the UK. But if you whacked the dashboard. Sometimes it started. And stopped. And started again. That’s what our conscience is like. It works. Sometimes. Sporadically. Unreliably. The great news is that when we become Christians, the Spirit instantly begins to repair our damaged conscience, with the result that it is actually possible for us to have clear conscience in specific situations and on specific issues.
And that’s what Paul is saying. If we examine ourselves honestly before God in the light of his word, it is possible to speak with quiet confidence and real humility about our actions, which is what Paul does – we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and Godly sincerity.
The word ‘conducted ourselves’ is an unusual one, which Paul has chosen because it conveys the idea of a pattern of behaviour, rather than individual actions. He’s not implying that he has reached a state of sinless perfection, or that every individual action he takes is utterly free from any taint of selfishness or mixed motives. This is a ‘big picture’ statement, that his actions have been characterised by simplicity and Godly sincerity. There were plenty of people on the ancient stand-up Philosophy circuit who were very happy to talk themselves up, play to the crowd, and line their own pockets. But not Paul – because he has been recalibrated by the grace of God. And that means with Paul, what you see is what you get. He is transparently, wholeheartedly sincere. And that really is the way it should be.
He underlines that in verse 13
13For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand. And I hope that, 14as you have understood us in part, you will come to understand fully that you can boast of us just as we will boast of you in the day of the Lord Jesus. Paul says I have been completely open with you – and how could I be anything else? We’re in this together. Because of Christ we suffer together for him. We encourage each other together in him. We will be brought home together by him. So we should be able to boast about what God is doing in each other.
Of course, all this can only happen if God works in us through the Spirit of Christ. It is Jesus Christ who produces in us this straightforwardness, this transparent sincerity. An integrity and wholeheartedness which isn’t always trying to impress, or talk ourselves up, or manipulate, or dominate, or flatter, or mislead. But an authenticity which lives and breathes that ‘Because of the grace of God, I am what I am.’
In some ways, these are hard words to hear just now. Exposing, upsetting even. I’m sure some of you even as we read these words have been saying ‘we could have done with a bit of integrity and Godly sincerity round here.’ But remember they weren’t exactly on display for all to see in Corinth either, but according to Paul, they could be. And wouldn’t it be marvellous if in a few months, in a few years, that MPC was a byword for integrity and godly sincerity?
HOW DO WE GET THERE
So how do we get there? Start with ourselves. Ask yourself, as I ask myself, if this week in what we said to one another, and when we said it, and to whom we said and why we said it was Christlike – borne of integrity and gospel sincerity. Or was it manipulative, or selective, or self serving. We may need to repent and ask God to forgive and change us. Then move from there to think about our leaders – this is the first thing we need to pray for our elders, and what we need to look for as we elect new elders. If we are elders, this is the standard we must measure ourselves against. For together, we must seek in the grace of God to build a community where these profoundly attractive Christ-like values saturate everything we do. So integrity and godly sincerity in 2:11-12. That’s the first thing. And the second?
Because he is so committed to them, Paul had been planning yet another visit:
2 Cor. 1:15 Because I was confident of this, I wanted to visit you first so that you might benefit twice. 16I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea. Paul intended a double visit maximise the value of his visits.
When Paul visited, his great concern was to encourage people in the gospel. Listen to what he writes to the Romans: 1:11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong- 12that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. But one of the occupational hazards of being an apostle in the 1st century was having to make travel plans and then break them. Paul continues 13I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.
Making plans was one thing. But border closures, quarantine regulations, shipwrecks, bandits, flooded roads, getting arrested, wars breaking out plus emergencies in the growing network of churches across the Mediterranean meant that sometimes things didn’t work out quite to plan for Paul. And that’s what had happened with his double trip to Corinth. He’d had to cancel, and the Corinthians had accused him of being flaky, unreliable and unstable. Which really wasn’t fair.
Paul then explains that he has been completely dependable in pouring himself out for Christ and his church. Here’s what he writes to the Corinthians in 2:17ff: 7 Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both “Yes, yes” and “No, no”? His answer is ‘absolutely not’. Gospel people are, have to be dependable, because they belong to a God who is utterly dependable – verse 18 But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us-by me and Silas and Timothy-was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” 20 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Paul’s basic point is that gospel people (including him) are dependable, because God is completely dependable. This is why he would never say ‘absolutely’ in one breath and ‘no way’ in the next (verse 18). His priorities are always gospel priorities. Jesus was resolutely dependable in saying ‘Not my will but yours’, and Paul is following in his steps. Jesus Christ is faithful to and through death – which is why the fulfilment of all God’s promises is found in him. So what then are we to do? It’s our job to say a great big ‘Amen’ to Christ’s dependability by boring utterly, boringly, consistently dependable ourselves.
Paul says ‘yes, I had to change plans – but can’t you see that from the start, I’ve been utterly reliable in speaking the gospel to you, in all the twists and turns of our relationship? This is what God does in people like us – he produces in us this kind of gospel dependability, that allows us to roll with the bumps in the road. That’s why he gave us his Spirit;
21Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
So the main question we need to ask in the light of this is are we dependable?
Whatever else is going on, can we be counted on to put the gospel first? But there is another challenge here.
The tension between Paul and the Corinthians was partly at least the result of poor communication. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s so much easier to demonise other people when we’re not in the room with them. I reckon that the longer I don’t see someone face to face, the easier I find it to either criticise them myself, or to listen to other people badmouthing them. That’s why when there are issues between us, we really do need to talk – to talk early, honestly and with a view to repentance where necessary and reconciliation where possible. Of course there are no guarantees when relationships fracture in church, but let’s at least make sure we handle them in a godly, face to face way wherever possible. So dependability is the second Christ-like mark of Paul’s pattern of life. And the third?
FULL-STRENGTH LOVE (1:23-2:11)
Still with me? Good. Because now we get to the nub of Paul’s explanation of why he didn’t come. It’s because he loves them. Because he loves them deeply, he was prepared to stay away because he knows that showing up again right after his last ‘painful visit’ would only make things worse. Pau’s love for them is a full-strength, spend himself for, do what is best for them kind of love.
Look with me at how he walks them through this: 2Cor. 1:23 I call God as my witness-and I stake my life on it-that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth. Paul knew that if he showed up again, he was going to have to confront and correct them again, at a time when they were still raw from his last visit. And that wasn’t because he was a nasty person, or too blunt or demanding – on the contrary, verse 24, 24Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm. . Because Paul loves people, his overwhelming concern is that once people have understood the gospel, and are ‘standing firm in their faith’, that they taste the real and solid joy of the gospel.
I think that phrase in the middle of verse 24 – we work with you for your joy – is so telling. The goal of Paul’s ministry, as he urges people to embrace both the seriousness and satisfaction of the gospel, is to help people to delight in God in the middle of the brokenness of this world. This is full-strength, Christlike love. It’s not satisfied with numbers or programmes or processes. It’s not just aiming for ‘peace’ in church. It’s aiming much higher than that. It’s aiming for – longing for – other people to know this solid joy in God himself. If we love each other like this, then we’ll be ready to do anything to help each other know this joy, and we’ll be willing to stop doing anything which would deflect other people from the gospel faithfulness which leads to this joy. For this is what Christlike love looks like. It is love which understands that your joy and is partially my responsibility! That’s a pretty radical thought.
That jumps out of what Paul says from 2:1 So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you. 2For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? 3I wrote as I did, so that when I came I would not be distressed by those who should have made me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy. 4For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you. Paul had thought through his change of itinerary carefully and lovingly, because he is working for their greatest and lasting joy, which is also what brings his real joy in Christ – so instead of coming in person he wrote a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, tear-stained, love-saturated letter, because he thinks that is the best thing he can do for them, as he encouraged them to find their joy in Christ. This is Christlike ministry.
You can see more of his preoccupation with their joy in verses 5-11, as he turns to a very specific issue. In 1 Corinthians, Paul had encouraged them to deal firmly with someone who had sinned spectacularly and publicly. Paul has heard, to his encouragement, that they did this. But now, tough old Paul, the one who was so insistent on church discipline, tells them that enough is enough. Not because of any personal agenda, but because of the need for the whole church, hurt by this sin, to experience and embrace the healing that flows from repentance. Here’s what Paul writes: 2Cor. 2:5 If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent-not to put it too severely. 6The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. 7Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (lit. swallowed up by sin). 8I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. 8So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. This really is the softer side of Paul – his love is full-orbed: it’s tough but it’s also tender. Nothing is brushed under the carpet, but nor is this discipline vindictive – or even permanent. Church discipline for Paul has the goal of repentance and restoration, and that is the possibility before the church.
In fact, Paul presses on to urge the Corinthians to show that they really have grasped the gospel and are living in the light of the gospel, to demonstrate it in grace and forgiveness: 9Another reason I wrote you (instead of coming) was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. Are you really on board with a gospel agenda? This was Paul’s concern. He has no vendetta against individuals
10Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven-if there was anything to forgive-I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, 11in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes. He knows that both taking the easy way out and ignoring church discipline on the one hand and becoming harsh and condemning on the other play right into Satan’s hands in undermining the witness of the church and the ministry of the gospel. So what do we need? We need a full-orbed, Christlike love for one another.
As we move forward together, it is so important that we learn again – or perhaps learn for the first time – to love each other just like this.
To be deeply concerned about each other’s joy in Christ, and determined to go to any lengths to encourage and protect each other, speaking the truth in all its richness into each others lives in a way that shows integrity and Godly sincerity, and dependability and above all, this full-orbed love of Christ. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if a few months, or a few years from now, MPC was known as a church which loves each other deeply?
In the 4th century, John Chrysostom said this about recovering from problems in church: after repentance ‘… reveal your friendship as certain, unshakable, fervent ardent and fiery; present your love with the same strength as the previous hatred’. This is full-orbed, Chris-like love. And let me mention one more delightful detail and we’re finished:
DEEP FRIENDSHIP (2:12-13)
If you haven’t picked up yet that Paul really does care about people, look with at 2:12-13.
2 Cor 2:12 2Cor. 2:12 Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, 13I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.. Paul is in Troas – the crossroads where he had to make up his mind to go to Corinth or not, and two things happened. (1) He had the opportunity to take the gospel to Macedonia (Philippi and the rest). (2) There was no sign of Titus, who had arranged to meet him there, and Paul was desperately worried. But once he realised that Titus had been last heard of in Macedonia, he was off. Off to preach, and to look for his friend,
Can you imagine how much it must have meant to Titus that Paul was willing to change his travel plans to make sure that he was OK? Even thought it would cause Paul all kinds of knock-one problems in Corinth? That’s the kind of friend I wand to be. That’s the kind of friends I need to keep going – don’t you? Friends who don’t assume that everything is OK, friends who take time to work out the kind of encouragement I need, friends who notice when I’m not quite firing on all cylinders. Friends who will drop everything and head to Macedonia to find you when you don’t show up. Don’t you need friends like that? Don’t you want to be a friend like that? This is the kind of gospel shaped friendship that flows from a deep commitment to loving one another as partners in gospel ministry.
And how does this kind of deep friendship grow?
It grows when we fix our eyes on Jesus, and step towards each other in the gospel, relating to each other with integrity and godly sincerity, standing with each other for the gospel with dependability, growing in a full-orbed love for each other, as God himself works in us as his people.
And that’s where we must land as we read this passage: it is God through the gospel who produces lives and communities marked by integrity and godly sincerity, dependability, full-orbed love and deep friendships. It is God himself who makes us like the Lord Jesus, as he enables us to copy the Lord Jesus. It’s why our greatest need is to run to him, follow him, look to him, drink of him, confident that he will supply our every need. For as Paul says, in Christ, all the promises of God are already a resounding YES! In Christ, God has already given us everything we need – including everything we need to follow Paul as he follows Christ, for, in the words of 1:21
21Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. And even more than that, empowering us to live together for him and with him in a way that reflects his beauty, right here, and right now. Amen.